Dani Pedrosa

The MotoGP mid-term report

Who has flown, who has flopped, and who has plenty to do at the halfway mark of the 2017 MotoGP season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was never going to be easy for MotoGP 2017 to out-do the season that preceded it; after all, nine different winners, four first-time victors and too many memorable races to list makes 2016 hard to top. But so far, ’17 has upheld its part of the bargain, and as the campaign takes a month-long pause for the mid-season break, it could be argued that this year is even more gripping than last.

With nine races down and nine races to go, we’ve already had five different riders wins Grands Prix, 10 different men stand on the podium, and four riders – Marc Marquez, Maverick Vinales, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi – separated by just 10 points at the head of the table.

Undoubtedly the biggest winners of 2017 so far? The fans. But with ‘school’ out for the summer break before the Czech Republic Grand Prix signals the resumption of term on August 6, picking winners and losers from the 27 riders to have started a race this season isn’t as clear-cut. Which is where our annual mid-season report card comes in. Release the grades …

Dux of the class
When we ran the rule over the two-wheel field this time last year, Marc Marquez was a runaway winner in this category, going to the summer break with a 48-point lead – nearly two race wins – with nine down and nine to go. While the reigning and three-time MotoGP champ heads our class report so far this year, his lead over second-placed Vinales – just five points – is next to nothing, and he’s led the championship precisely once, after taking his second victory of 2017 last time out in Germany. But dig through the numbers, and it’s hard to argue Marquez isn’t the man of the year so far.

Out of the front-running four we mentioned earlier, the Repsol Honda rider is by far the best qualifier – he has six front-row starts in nine races and an average qualifying position of 2.7 (Vinales is next-best at 5.1), while five podiums sees him equal with teammate Dani Pedrosa for the most on the grid. Two costly DNFs – particularly when he was leading in Argentina – are negatives, but his wins in Austin (for the fifth year in a row) and the Sachsenring (for a remarkable eighth-straight time going back to his time in the feeder classes) show that when he’s on it, Marquez remains the benchmark, particularly as it could be argued that he’s on the worst bike of the top four.

Vinales started his Yamaha tenure like a train but has struggled more recently, averaging a fourth-row start in the last three races before the break, and recording just one podium in the past four races after winning three of the opening five. Dovizioso’s back-to-back wins at Mugello and Catalunya were all class, and he’s made Ducati look more convincing as a front-running bike than anyone since the Casey Stoner era. And Rossi, all of 38 years young, wound back the clock with a brilliant win in very difficult conditions at Assen for his first triumph in over 12 months. But to our mind, Marquez stands alone here.

Bizarrely, Marquez and Vinales haven’t been on the same podium together yet despite being first and second in the championship and separated by such a miniscule margin. You figure that when they meet on track in the final nine races – and they surely will – fireworks will ensue.

Encouragement award
Rossi and Dovizioso have cause to be considered here too for reasons we’ve already mentioned, but it’s impossible to split Tech 3 Yamaha’s duo of crack rookies, Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.

Zarco has hogged the majority of the headlines, as he should have after leading in Qatar on debut and snagging a sublime pole at Assen, and the two-time Moto2 champion has shown absolutely no hesitation in ruffling the feathers of the MotoGP top-liners, which has to be commended. Folger, while going about his business more subtly, loses little by comparison, and rounded out a strong first half with his best performance of the season at home in Germany, where he made Sachsenring master Marquez sweat for most of the 30-lap distance before the Repsol Honda man (inevitably) stretched away.

Thanks to Zarco and Folger, Tech 3 has arguably been the star team of the season – last year, with experienced pair Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith on board, the French team had scored 107 points at the season recess; this season, its rookie duo have managed 155 to both sit inside the top seven in the standings.

A gold star here must go to Pramac Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci, who managed three front-row starts in a row before the break, and came within inches of a breakthrough first win before being denied at the line by good friend Rossi at Assen. Two podiums already for the Italian has doubled his tally from his first five MotoGP seasons combined.

Could do better
We could say Scott Redding here, who, while admittedly on an inferior machine to teammate Petrucci, has struggled this season and looks set to lose his ride for 2018, We could equally vouch for Redding’s compatriot Sam Lowes, who has endured a wretched run of luck with his Aprilia but hasn’t been particularly quick when the bike has actually worked, and has managed two points – the worst of any full-time rider in the series – so far.

But no, we’ll opt for Jorge Lorenzo, who has found the switch to Ducati to be more problematic than even he would have feared. One podium total (a third at Jerez) looks pretty underwhelming for the three-time champion compared to two wins for teammate Dovizioso, and while both riders have finished eight of the nine races, the Italian has come close to doubling the Spaniard’s points tally (123-65).

Having to re-train his brain to remember he’s not riding a Yamaha after nine seasons was always going to take time for Lorenzo, and he’ll be hoping for fine weather for the rest of the season after his wet-weather demons resurfaced again at Assen, where he laboured to the worst qualifying result of his MotoGP career in 21st, and his worst effort on a Saturday since his 125cc days 14 years ago (Jerez 2003). Things will get surely better for Ducati’s star signing, but they need to, and fast.

Needs a strong second semester
It may seem harsh to have Jack Miller in this spot, but when you come into the final year of a three-year contract with HRC with a MotoGP race win under your belt, expectations were always going to be raised in 2017. The Australian has largely delivered – he has one championship point fewer at the mid-year break this season compared to last after the unexpected Assen success in 2016 – but with all sorts of rumours swirling about his future as the paddock packed up in Germany, he needs more, and he knows it.

“I would have liked to have been inside the top 10 in the standings, but we’ve had a couple of little mistakes here and there that cost us,” Miller said about the season’s first half.

“We’ve shown we’ve really improved this year, and I’m looking forward to making another, let’s say 60 points, in the rest of the season. That’d be nice.”

Reaching the ton for the season – and getting to the end of it in decent physical shape after an injury-ravaged conclusion to 2016 – would be a pass mark for the Aussie before he gets set for his next adventure in ’17.

Extra detention
We’re not picking on Andrea Iannone despite having him in this same category this time last year, but a change of hue from red to blue has done little to change our mind about the maddeningly inconsistent but very rapid Italian. It’s been a tough campaign for Suzuki after losing Vinales and Aleix Espargaro last year, and while Alex Rins’ rookie campaign has barely got started after breaking his left wrist in practice at Austin and missing five races, Iannone has been the blue team’s ever-present, yet has been close to invisible for much of the year.

He’s managed just 28 points in nine races, has failed to finish three times, and has made Q2 just once in the past five races. Former Suzuki legend Kevin Schwantz, speaking to Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport in Germany, let Iannone have it.

“I know by experience that if things are wrong, there is only one thing to do; get out there and work – and try,” the 1993 500cc champion said.

“You have to do more than all the others to try to recover. Iannone is lost, because it seems like he wants the Suzuki to behave like the Ducati. But this bike will never be a Ducati. He should try to take advantage of its strengths.

“Speaking to him, it seems that the bike has no strengths. I don’t understand Italian, but his body language is as bad as it can be.”

What MotoGP testing told us about 2017

A champion will need to dig deep, Qatar might not be a sign of what’s to come, and a rider of the future is ready to win now.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Valencia, Sepang, Phillip Island and Losail – you couldn’t get four more different venues for MotoGP pre-season testing ahead of the 2017 campaign, and while there were some similarities to what happened at that quartet of tracks, we’re set to head into the season-opener in Qatar in less than a fortnight with plenty of unanswered questions about the world’s premier two-wheel road-racing category – which, for us fans, is a good thing.

Can a Yamaha newcomer really upstage his vastly more experienced teammate? Can Ducati take the fight to the rest at every track, not just those that feature straights akin to freeways? Who can topple Honda? And can the other three factories in MotoGP this season – Aprilia, Suzuki and KTM – occasionally muscle in on the trio who have typically been at the front in recent times?

The final three-day test for the off-season wrapped up in Qatar last weekend; here’s what we learned before the lights go out on the 2017 season at the same venue on March 26.

Qatar might not tell us much …
Holding the final test of the off-season at the same venue where the real thing starts less than a fortnight later is practical from a freight and logistics point of view, but perhaps not the best preparation. The Qatar GP is a night event, while testing runs from 4-11pm local time. The baking heat of the desert means track temperatures until the sun goes down bear no relevance to what the riders will experience on race weekend, while the desert dew that settles on the circuit surface after 10pm soon turns the track into an ice rink, with riders electing to stay in the garage rather than inexplicably crashing at a corner that was gripped up a lap earlier. About half the day – at best – is useful for the riders and teams.

It’s not just the conditions at the Qatar test that aren’t representative of what’s to come. The 5.3km Losail circuit features a mammoth 1.1km start-finish straight, where the bikes can nudge 350km/h – which is great news if you’re riding a Ducati. The top seven riders on the timesheet at the end of the test? One Honda, two Yamahas, and four on Ducatis. A sign of what might happen for the first race of the season? Definitely. A pecking order translatable to the other 17 circuits on the calendar? Not so much

… except for the man at the front
Tight and twisty Valencia, the sweeps of Sepang, the high-speed balls-out Phillip Island and the desert dragstrip of Qatar; whatever the weather, track conditions or other variables this off-season, Maverick Vinales has been the benchmark. Coming across from Suzuki to the factory Yamaha squad as Valentino Rossi’s teammate, Vinales could barely have been more impressive through testing, the Spaniard topping the timesheets at all four. From one-lap qualifying simulations to long race-length runs, ‘The Mack’ seems to have everything covered. He’s so confident – and rightly so – that he didn’t even bother playing the usual pre-season game of hosing down expectations, Vinales admitting his pace was “incredible” after night three in Qatar. He later stopped short of assuming outright favouritism for the 2017 crown – “there are many riders who can be the favourite for the championship, at least the ones from Ducati, from Yamaha, from Honda can be the champions” – but after an off-season that couldn’t have gone better, expect Vinales to add to his sole MotoGP success to date (at last year’s British Grand Prix) sooner rather than later.

It’s not easy to know who’s fast
The final day of pre-season testing, especially given the location, is usually a chance for fans (and the other teams) to gauge the race pace of the various bikes and riders over distances closer to the 22-lap/118.4km race length for the opening Grand Prix of the year. The problem this time? Not all of the theoretical front-runners showed their hand.

The list of 11 riders who never completed 10 or more laps in a row on the final day featured reigning world champion Marc Marquez, his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, Rossi, the Italian’s former teammate and now Ducati top dog Jorge Lorenzo, and Suzuki newcomer Andrea Iannone, all podium finishers from Grands Prix in 2016 who would be expected to be near the front again this season. Of those who did manage a race simulation, Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso (a 14-lap run that averaged 1min 55.666secs) was fastest, but Vinales’ 20-lap run was just 0.035secs slower on average – and featured three ‘slow’ laps where the Spaniard held back to avoid encountering slower traffic.

How do the likes of Marquez, Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo compare to that? We’ll have to wait until next weekend to find out.

The aero war takes a new turn
With winglets banned in MotoGP this season, you knew the teams would come up with some innovative aerodynamic solutions to recapture the downforce the wings of 2016 provided – and Ducati took things to a new extreme on the second day of the test when it unveiled a bulbous front fairing on Dovizioso’s bike that was quickly christened the ‘hammerhead’. Paddock reaction, as you might have guessed, ranged from intrigued to horrified to amused …

Dovizioso said the downforce generated by the new fairing was “not the same, but very close” to the winglets pioneered by Ducati over the past few seasons. Whether it will be raced in Qatar and from then on remains to be seen. Regardless, you can bet fans will be talking about it between now and then.

What’s the form guide?
Vinales is indisputably quick, and justifiably confident. And according to Dovizioso, he’s a clear championship favourite. “I think at this point Vinales is really fast in every condition, which is really bad for us and everybody else,” the Italian said after the second night in Qatar. “Anything can happen during the championship and last year with Marc, it showed the reality. But in this moment, 100 per cent for everything – his talent, he is young and the bike he has.”

Marquez fell three times on the final day, never completed a race simulation run and was just 11th on the overall timesheets, but downplaying the championship chances of a rider who has won three titles in four MotoGP seasons would be foolish. Pedrosa was the more convincing of the factory Honda riders at Losail, but is he really ready to shed the ‘nearly-man’ tag that has come with more than a decade in MotoGP without winning the crown? What about Ducati and Lorenzo? For all the Spaniard’s talent and the team’s ambition, not yet.

Which leaves Rossi, who always races better than he tests and even qualifies. Beating Vinales in Qatar looks a bridge too far, but if the new-for-2017 Yamaha is really as good as the Spaniard has shown so far, expect ‘The Doctor’ to haul himself into the championship fight with a rider 16 years his junior, and perhaps one or two others.

Lessons learned from the Australian MotoGP test

A Spanish rivalry hots up, an Aussie makes big strides, and ‘The Doctor’ is behind the eight ball.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Three down, one to go: three-quarters of MotoGP pre-season testing for 2017 is in the books after last week’s three-day hit-out at Phillip Island, and with only a pre-Qatar blast to come before the season starts at the Losail Circuit in late March, we now have a clearer picture of who’s on song – and who has plenty to ponder in the next five weeks.

As he did in Valencia at the end of 2016 and Malaysia in January, Maverick Vinales set the benchmark time across three days at the Victorian coastal circuit, but assessing testing is rarely as simple as going by what the stopwatch tells you. Several riders made striking progress as the Island test rolled on, while others headed back to Europe knowing they’re not yet on the pace, and – worryingly for some – not exactly knowing why either.

Here’s what we learned after the Australian test, which was (for Phillip Island standards) blessed by unusually stable and sunny weather, not something we often see in October when the MotoGP roadshow returns for the race proper.

1. Vinales is fastest, but Marquez is the front-runner

Vinales has made quite the impression at Yamaha since coming across from Suzuki, and his day three time of 1min 28.549secs (considerably faster than pole position at the Island last October, incidentally) showed how quickly he’s meshed with his new machine. Impressive, sure – but what might have been more ominous for the rest was what Marc Marquez was able to do on the Repsol Honda, particularly on day two when teammate Dani Pedrosa battled illness and didn’t ride a lot. Marquez did a mammoth 107 laps (“my hands are destroyed,” was his rueful comment afterwards), and 44 of those were beneath 90 seconds – a fearsomely consistent pace that put the others in the shade. Replicate that over 27 laps in October’s race here, and he’ll win by a country mile. The reigning and three-time world champion was second on the overall timesheets at the end of the test, but fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow knew better than to read too much into that. “Marc showed his hand a little bit,” the matter-of-fact Brit said, “but he has some (time) in his pocket, trust me.”

2. The niggle between Vinales and Marquez is real

An on-track moment inside the final two hours of the test on Friday suggested that Marquez sees Vinales – not Vinales’ Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi or Ducati defector Jorge Lorenzo – as his main impediment to achieving four MotoGP titles in five years by the end of this season. With Vinales on a long race simulation run, Marquez emerged from the Phillip Island pits and shadowed his Spanish compatriot around the track for a few laps before Vinales pitted to shake him loose.

Coincidence, or not? Was Marquez trying to unsettle Vinales? The champ protested his innocence, as he might. “There was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike,” Marquez said afterwards. Vinales was a little more expansive. “The track is four kilometres – strange that he was there, where I was,” he mused. “It’s not normal. You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out … you cannot stop. After five laps that he was behind, finally I needed to abort the race simulation.” Watch this space with these two.

3. Phillip Island is a particular track

As a racing venue, the Island – with its succession of sweeping corners and stunning scenery – is one of the best on the calendar. As a testing venue that teams can learn from to tweak their bikes to most tracks? Not so much. There’s nowhere quite like the Australian circuit elsewhere across the 17 other Grands Prix venues, and with only two slow corners of note and an abrasive track surface that tortures the tyres (the hottest tyre temperatures all year are recorded through the final two turns of the track, the never-ending left-handers that lead the bikes back onto the start-finish straight), there’s not a lot you can learn in Australia that applies elsewhere. Honda often struggles with traction out of slow-speed corners, so to see three of them in the top five on the timesheets and four inside the top nine was no surprise given Phillip Island’s characteristics. Will that be replicated at the stop-start Losail layout in a month’s time? Doubtful.

4. Miller’s pace is genuine

The fourth of those Hondas inside the top nine was Jack Miller’s Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS entry, and the Australian could barely contain his enthusiasm after a three-day test where he carried the team’s workload by himself with Tito Rabat back in Europe recovering from injuries sustained at Sepang last month.

Miller was clean, didn’t fall once, was inside the top 10 on all three days and completed over 80 laps – more than three Grand Prix distances – on each day. “For the first time in a long time I feel like I’m in charge of the bike and not the other way round,” Miller joked on Friday, and he’s clearly benefitting from the work done behind the scenes with vastly experienced Spanish engineer Ramon Aurin, who teams up with the Aussie for the first time this season. After a solid showing in the Malaysia test, Australia was another step in the right direction for Miller, who is in arguably the best physical shape of his career as he starts a crucial contract year in 2017.

5. Should Rossi fans be concerned?

‘The Doctor’ celebrated his 38th birthday on day two of the test, and the celebratory cake might have been the best things got over three difficult days Down Under. He was under the weather for much of the test away from the bike, and when he was on it, things weren’t a lot better, according to the man himself. Yes, it’s ‘only’ testing, but 12th on the overall timesheets was cause for consternation. “I think the bike has good aspects, especially the engine, but for sure this test was more difficult for me than the one in Sepang, ” Rossi said after the final day. “I’m not very happy, and we need to try to do better.”

What’s in store for Dani Pedrosa?

Our snapshot of Repsol Honda’s Spanish veteran and what’s on his to-do list for the 2017 season.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

Assessing Dani Pedrosa’s MotoGP career is almost as difficult as securing a ticket for race day at Mugello when Valentino Rossi is in the championship mix – not completely impossible, but damned hard work. The Repsol Honda rider has won 52 races across all the world championship classes; only eight other men have won as many or more Grands Prix in a series that dates back to 1949. His quality is undeniable. But the flipside? Pedrosa has been at the sport’s best (or at least second-best) squad for all 11 of his MotoGP seasons and hasn’t won the title – and three of his teammates over that time (Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner and Marc Marquez) have. It’s a statistical conundrum that makes his upcoming season all the more interesting – so here’s what’s in store for 2017.

The stats
Perhaps it’s his diminutive frame (160cm, 51kg), but you can’t help but double-check Pedrosa’s date of birth when you realise he turns 32 in September. A one-time 125cc champion (2003) and double 250cc champ (2004-05), Pedrosa has won races in all 11 of his premier-class campaigns and has finished championship runner-up three times. His place in history? Consider that Mick Doohan, one of the best ever to do it, won two more races in his career than Pedrosa’s 52 and counting.

What he did last year
Last year’s switch from Bridgestone to Michelin tyres was one that was supposed to benefit Pedrosa, the extra grip provided by the Michelin rear expected to suit his signature sweeping riding style. What wasn’t in his favour was the weather, 2016 seeing an unusually high number of races held in either wet or cold (or both) conditions. When track temperatures were low, the small Spaniard struggled to get any heat into his tyres and was nowhere, especially as the Honda was notoriously slow out of corners. Misano and the San Marino GP (held on a track surface that was a roasting 43 degrees) saw Pedrosa in his element, storming through from eighth on the grid to win, but he fell in practice at Motegi two races later, busted his right collarbone, and missed three of the final four races.

What changes in 2017?
A change of luck would be high on Pedrosa’s wish-list; only twice in the past seven years (2012 and 2014) has he been able to complete the entire season without falling victim to serious injury. Job security isn’t an issue – Pedrosa was re-signed by Repsol Honda until the end of the 2018 season last May – while behind the scenes, crew chief Giacomo Guidotti (who was Scott Redding’s right-hand man last season) replaces Ramon Aurin, who worked with Pedrosa from 2012 onwards and will now team up with fellow Honda rider Jack Miller.

Number to know
One win in 2016 equalled 2014 as Pedrosa’s worst year since his rookie season in the world championship on a 125 (2001), while sixth overall was his lowest finishing position in 11 MotoGP campaigns.

Chief rivals
We’ll go with ‘rivals’, plural, as it’s hard to separate Pedrosa’s horrendously bad luck and Marquez in this space. A year without significant injury would be the second-best outcome besides taking the title, while everything Pedrosa achieves will be analysed through the lens of what Marquez does on the sister Repsol Honda. Only once, in 2015, has Pedrosa finished anywhere close to Marquez in the end-of-season points tally, which had plenty to do with the world champion crashing out of one-third of the 18 races that year.

Dream outcome
Pedrosa simply can’t afford a start to 2017 that mirrors last season, where he made just one podium in the opening six races, a gifted third in Argentina that owed itself to Andrea Iannone taking himself and Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso out on the final lap. The majority of Pedrosa’s 14 race victories over the past five seasons have come in the second half of the year, so simply being in contention by the mid-year break after the German GP in early July has to be the aim.

Nightmare realised
An early injury or a Marquez blitzkrieg in the Qatar-Argentina-Austin flyaways to start the season would be bad news for Pedrosa. While he’s contracted to Honda for the next two seasons, a slow start would only increase the noise as to who would inherit his prize seat for 2019, such is the interest in Honda’s long-term plan on who to place alongside Marquez.

Fearless prediction
A better season than 2016? Yes. A title rival for Marquez, let alone Rossi on a Yamaha and perhaps the likes of Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Vinales? Unlikely. A top-three championship result would represent a strong bounce-back campaign.

Why MotoGP in 2017 will be mega

Can 2017 be a worthy encore to the compellingly crazy 2016 season? We say yes.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

MotoGP has plenty of work to do in 2017. How can next year match the one we’ve just witnessed, with nine different race winners, four first-time victors, all-out brawls at the front of the field and plenty more drama besides?

Fortunately, a chaotic rider market has helped to set expectations for 2017 sky-high. More than half of the 23 names on the 2017 entry list will be in new teams (or new to the category altogether) next year, and against the backdrop of a fairly stable calendar and sequence of races, it’s the familiar faces in new places that will be the source of much of the intrigue for the season ahead.

Looking for a reason or five to get excited about 2017? Read on.

A triple treat

Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo. The three riders who have finished 1-2-3 (in various orders) in the championship for the past three years. You’d get short odds on this terrific trio doing likewise again in 2017, but this time it promises to be different, with Lorenzo’s move to Ducati meaning the sport’s three alpha dogs are riding for three different manufacturers. Can Marquez tame the Honda RC213V and curb his natural daredevil style once more to repeat the championship he regained last season? Will Rossi thrive without Lorenzo on the sister Yamaha and be a legitimate title contender again at age 38? And can Lorenzo drag Ducati towards the pointy end on a more regular basis than the retained Andrea Dovizioso has or the departed Andrea Iannone could? The three kingpins of the sport in three different teams with three different philosophies of how to win races and championships? It promises to be the story of the season.

Lorenzo’s legacy

The stats: 35 races, no wins, just three podiums and a best placing of sixth in the championship. You can be sure Lorenzo has Rossi’s numbers from two barren years at Ducati in 2011-12 burned into his brain, and while ‘The Doctor’ became a title contender again once he bolted back to Yamaha, his ex-teammate will be massively motivated to make his own stint in Ducati red far more successful. Lorenzo’s legacy is intact whatever he does for the Italian manufacturer – the three-time MotoGP world champion has finished third or better in the championship a remarkable eight times in nine premier-class campaigns – but if he could go to Ducati and do what Rossi couldn’t – as in restore the red team to its glory days of Casey Stoner in 2007 – he’d surely be considered one of the best to ever do it. The Spaniard turns 30 in May, has time, class and resources on his side, and is clearly raring to go, if his regular tweets counting down the days to the start of the season are any indication. We can’t wait either.

Vinales is ready

If Lorenzo is chomping at the bit to get started, his replacement at the factory Yamaha outfit, Maverick Vinales, was ready five weeks ago, when he topped the timesheets on his first test for his new team in the post-race hit-out at Valencia the week after the final Grand Prix of 2016. Expect Vinales to take all of five minutes to settle in at Yamaha and be a potential race-winner from day one in Qatar in late March. Will he fare better compared to Rossi than Dovizioso against Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa trying to halt the Marquez juggernaut? Almost certainly. Will the so-far amicable relationship between Vinales and Rossi stand the test of time? Based on previous evidence, it’d have to be a long shot. After all, remember Marquez admitting he had posters of Rossi on his bedroom wall growing up, and then how things went in Malaysia in 2015? Regardless, ‘The Mack’ on full attack on a Yamaha will be a sight to see.

The graduates

A quick Moto2 quartet steps up to the main game this season, and will all be worth watching for different reasons as they vie for what should be a very competitive rookie of the year prize (unlike last season, when Tito Rabat beat precisely nobody to take the debutant gong – the Spaniard was the only first-year rider in 2016). Johann Zarco makes the leap to MotoGP at 26 and as the only two-time Moto2 champion in the category’s history, while his Tech 3 Yamaha teammate is Jonas Folger, who won three races in three Moto2 seasons but never seemed to completely deliver on his obvious potential. Alex Rins has big shoes to fill as Vinales’ replacement at Suzuki, but has won races in the lower categories in four of his five world championship campaigns and has class written all over him. And at Aprilia, Sam Lowes steps in alongside ex-Suzuki man Aleix Espargaro and will be hoping to bring the good (two wins last year) to the top flight while leaving the bad (a seemingly endless stream of crashes late in the season – he managed four laps total in the Japan-Australia-Malaysia flyaways) back in the intermediate category. Picking a ‘winner’ of this race within a race is too close to call.

It’s Miller time

Well, it has to be, doesn’t it? The coming season will be the third and final year of Jack Miller’s HRC contract, and he’s staying with Marc VDS for a second season. The progress Miller made last season – from 19th in the 2015 championship to 18th 12 months later – doesn’t look like much on paper, but the Aussie was barely fit last year, a pre-season motocross accident, a practice off at Austin and a heavy Sunday warm-up fall in Austria seeing him compete in just 13 of the 18 races, and many of those under major physical duress. Those 13 races featured five top-10 finishes, the first five of his career, and of course that maiden spectacular success at the Dutch TT. Off-season surgery to get some metal out of his right leg is done, and it’s time for Miller to get healthy, become consistent and benefit from the continuity of being in the same team for a second season as he looks to shape his future. As with anything the 21-year-old does, 2017 will be compulsory viewing.

All eyes on Austria

Can Honda and Yamaha repel Ducati’s charge as MotoGP returns to the Red Bull Ring?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

MotoGP heads to its first new track since Argentina in 2014 this weekend, when the world championship roars back into life at the Red Bull Ring in Austria for round 10 of the season. But it’s not quite a ‘new’ track – the world championship visited the Red Bull Ring, then under a different name, as recently as 1997.

Most of the teams and riders have sampled the 4.3-kilometre layout this season, Repsol Honda duo Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa in early July, and the majority of the rest of the grid later last month on what was, for most riders, their initial laps in anger of the circuit at a two-day test.

The MotoGP mid-season report card: who shone, and who bombed?

What did we learn from that first taste of MotoGP machinery in Austria for nearly 20 years? And who hits the ground running as they try to start the second half of the season with a strong result? Here’s what we know.

There’s nowhere quite like it
The Red Bull Ring looks like nothing else on the MotoGP calendar. Sure, there’s other tracks with plenty of elevation – Austin, Mugello, Brno and Sachsenring come to mind – but there’s nowhere that has just nine turns, and nowhere that has (on paper at least) such a relatively simple layout. Does that make it easy? Far from it. “Compared to the other circuits it has a lot less corners,” says Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi. “At the end of the lap you have done only nine or 10, normally there are around 15.”

For Suzuki’s Maverick Vinales, the Red Bull Ring is unlike anything he’s encountered in his world championship career. “It is a very unusual track; it’s a typical ‘on/off track’, with hard accelerations, three long straights and hard braking,” the Spaniard says.

Over to you, Ducati
Those very circuit characteristics point to Ducati finally being able to snap a win drought that has – unfortunately for fans of the red bikes – almost reached historically barren levels. It’s been 99 races since Casey Stoner took Ducati’s last win at Phillip Island in 2010; can a Ducati stop that unwelcome run from reaching triple figures? Andrea Iannone set the fastest time of the two-day test (1min 23.240secs), with factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso, Stoner (in his role as a test rider for the team) and satellite Ducati rider Hector Barbera rounding out the top four. Fellow satellite riders Scott Redding (ninth) and Yonny Hernandez (10th) made it six Ducatis in the top 10, their sheer grunt advantage down the straights plainly obvious. “These were two days of very positive tests for us,” said a grinning Dovizioso afterwards. “We can exploit our potential to the maximum, and I believe that we can be really competitive in the race.”

Yamaha is in damage control
When you trail series leader Marquez by 48 points (Jorge Lorenzo) and 59 points (Rossi) respectively, Austria is the race you don’t want as the first one back after the mid-year break. While Honda struggled at the test without Marquez and Pedrosa present, Cal Crutchlow its fastest rider and 1.2 seconds off the pace, Yamaha didn’t do a lot better, Rossi 0.929secs off Iannone’s benchmark, and Lorenzo a couple of hundredths slower still. It doesn’t shape as a race where Lorenzo and Rossi can take a significant chunk out of Marquez’s advantage, and the Yamaha riders know it.

“It’s a very particular circuit because it is really, really fast and you spend a lot of time with the throttle fully open,” Rossi says. “For us, personally, it’s not the best circuit because usually we suffer a bit on top speed.”

Lorenzo, who comes into round 10 desperate for a good result after diabolical races at Assen and the Sachsenring, was even more pessimistic. “Some of our rivals are fast, it looks like the track is giving them a big advantage, especially in braking stability, acceleration and top speed,” he says. “They can put in all the power they have at this track, and the difference is huge.”

Miller’s ready for more
Jack Miller’s Assen win came from nowhere, but the Australian backed that up with another fine performance in the final race before the mid-year break at the Sachsenring, where he ran convincingly in the top five before finishing seventh. He’s one of the few riders to have experienced the Red Bull Ring before this year, racing at the circuit in the German 125cc championship in his early days in Europe in 2011, and Marc VDS team principal Michael Bartholemy expects the 21-year-old Australian to be “fired up” for this weekend. Miller is injury-free, confident and ready to go after racking up 151 laps across the two days last month. “This test was really important for us after missing so many tests at the start of the season,” he said afterwards. “It was great just to get a whole heap of dry laps in where I could just go out and ride the bike.” Another top-10 finish is definitely in play.

The hills are alive, and the walls are close
Expect the track – and its surrounds – to get plenty of air time this weekend. The picturesque setting is undoubtedly spectacular – “every direction you look is like a postcard, but the only way it gets this green is with a lot of rain,” joked Stoner at last month’s test – but it’s the scenery closer to the track that caused some consternation amongst the riders. “In terms of safety, I think there are a few spots with very little space and close to the walls,” Aprilia rider Alvaro Bautista said, echoing the thoughts of several of his colleagues. “Before the race it would be good to think about a few solutions, especially given the high speeds.”

The MotoGP report card

Nine races down, nine to go. Who has shone – and who has bombed – in 2016?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

For MotoGP, school is officially out. Nine races in the books, the mid-season test at the Red Bull Ring in Austria ahead of the next Grand Prix done, and nine races remaining. As the paddock, riders and fans catch their collective breaths over the next few weeks, the pause gives us cause for reflection – and a chance to run the rule over the field.

Marc Marquez has re-asserted himself as the MotoGP benchmark this season, but in a markedly different way than the swift Spaniard usually goes about his business. The Repsol Honda rider is the headline act, but what of the rest of the grid?

With the season in recess, let’s run through a report card of the year that has been – and get some pointers of what might come next as we grade the field.

Dux of the class

Marquez takes a 48-point championship lead into the summer break – the equivalent of almost two race wins – and should he convert that into a third premier-class title, it’ll be one earned by consistency and risk management as much as outright pace. Hands up who saw that sentence being written 12 months ago? Marquez’s win it or bin it approach bit him hard last year – his five victories were second only to eventual world champion Jorge Lorenzo, but six DNFs were more than any other rider in the top 10 in the standings – and saw him finish a whopping 88 points off Lorenzo’s points tally when the season came to a close. Marquez has three wins to the mid-season break, the most recent coming in his happiest hunting ground of the Sachsenring last time out – but it’s his approach when he can’t win that has been an eye-opener, second-place finishes at Catalunya (to Valentino Rossi) and Assen (to Jack Miller) prompting celebrations usually reserved for wins, especially at Assen when title rivals Rossi (DNF) and Lorenzo (10th) were nowhere. Eight podiums in the first nine races and a 100 per cent finishing record means that surely the only man who can stop Marquez from here is Marquez himself.

Encouragement award

There’s four candidates here, four riders at very different ages and stages of their careers, but all with plenty to be optimistic about at the halfway stage.

Maverick Vinales sits fifth in the standings after nine races, and after letting a golden opportunity for a maiden podium slip in Argentina in round two, he bounced back three races later at Le Mans to finish third, and has two front-row starts to his credit. Inking a contract with the factory Yamaha squad to partner Rossi from next season onwards overshadows anything he’s done on track, impressive as that has been. There’s still a tendency for Vinales to get pushed around on the opening lap of races, but in the dry, he and Suzuki have been strong.

Hector Barbera has more points than any other Ducati rider at the halfway stage of the season, which is as much a comment about the Spaniard’s consistency as it is an indictment of the other riders to ply their trade for the Italian marque. Barbera, on a two-year-old GP14, sits seventh in the title race, and with 65 points, he’s almost doubled his tally from the entire 2015 season already. A MotoGP-best second on the grid in Germany – in his 112th start – was the highlight.

Speaking of consistency, Eugene Laverty is one of just three riders (Marquez and Barbera are the others) to have finished every race, and the Northern Irishman sits 10th in the championship with 53 points; by contrast, his Aspar Ducati teammate Yonny Hernandez has three. Laverty hasn’t qualified better than the 14th on the grid he managed in the Qatar season-opener, but he’s always there to take whatever points are on offer, his fourth in Argentina on a day plenty of other riders lost their heads his standout result.

The last man in this category might have made the biggest turnaround of all – Miller. The Australian had an injury-compromised pre-season after a motocross accident, and a big off in practice in Austin saw him miss that race altogether. The season was looking pretty miserable until Catalunya, with a 10th-place result there a testament to his growing maturity and control, where he pushed the bike to its limits but no further. Assen was his crowning glory, a spectacular ride in dreadful conditions seeing him break through for his maiden MotoGP victory, and he backed that up with a strong display at the Sachsenring in similarly inclement weather, running inside the top five for much of the race before his lack of experience in flag-to-flag races saw him pit too late for a bike with dry tyres, dropping him to seventh at the flag.

With his battered leg healing, his confidence rising and the pressure removed from his shoulders, Miller will only get better from here.

Could do better

The theory – and the fear for Rossi fans – was that 2015 was his best and perhaps final chance to snare that elusive 10th world title that he’s been chasing since 2009 – and the first half of this season hasn’t done anything to dispel that. Rossi sits third in the title chase with 111 points and took superb wins at Jerez and Catalunya, but three non-finishes have left him with 68 points fewer than the halfway mark of last season, and with a mountain to climb. A mechanical DNF at Mugello was cruel, but self-inflicted crashes at Austin and later at Assen when he was second in the rain might have slammed the door on his championship quest.

Rossi’s teammate – at least for the rest of this year – is in similar strife. Lorenzo is second to Marquez in the standings, and his season has come unglued in the past three races, after he was taken out by Andrea Iannone in Catalunya, and was nowhere in the rain at Assen and the Sachsenring. His careful ride to 15th and one championship point in Germany after a weekend of crashes was almost painful to watch, and it was jarring to see the reigning world champion look so busy on the bike – when he’s in his element, pounding out lap after lap with precision that nobody else on the grid can match, it looks like he’s barely trying.

Dani Pedrosa re-signed with Repsol Honda until the end of 2018 in May, but went into the mid-season break with just two podiums, one of them a gift in Argentina when Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso combined for a Ducati disaster on the final lap. By contrast, he had six top-three finishes last year despite missing three of the 18 races with injury. Failing a dramatic turnaround, Pedrosa looks set for a third straight fourth-place championship finish – as in being the ‘other’ guy from the two powerhouse teams yet again.

Room for improvement

Dovizioso took pole at Assen and has five other starts on the front two rows of the grid, but has just 59 points to be ninth in the standings at the summer break. The Italian never seems to have any luck, but as the Andrea within the factory Ducati squad staying to partner Lorenzo next season, he’ll have wanted better.

For Cal Crutchlow, it was great that second in Germany came with 20 world championship points – and not-so great that those 20 points doubled his tally from the opening eight races before the Sachsenring. Four non-finishes in nine races ties with Dovizioso, Iannone and Hernandez as the most on the grid.

Crutchlow’s compatriot Bradley Smith is off to KTM next season, but isn’t exactly leaving the Tech 3 Yamaha squad with a bang; the Briton has 35 points after nine races compared to 87 at the same stage last year, and has out-qualified teammate Pol Espargaro just twice in nine races. If he maintains his 16th place in the standings, it’ll be by far the worst of his four MotoGP campaigns.

Meanwhile, Tito Rabat’s debut MotoGP season has been a nightmare; the 2014 Moto2 champion has qualified in the bottom three on the grid in every race, and added injury to insult when he broke his left collarbone at Mugello and missed the Italian GP altogether.

Extra detention

The MotoGP naughty corner could almost be named after Iannone, who has spent much of his final year in Ducati red in the bad books before he heads to Suzuki next season. Taking out teammate Dovizioso in Argentina on the last lap as they were in podium contention was bad enough, but harpooning Lorenzo in Barcelona earned him a demotion to the back of the grid for the next race at Assen. Mixed in with the madness have been podiums in Austin and at Mugello, and the fastest lap of the race in Italy, where he and the Ducati absolutely flew, touching 354.9km/h on the straight to set a new MotoGP top speed record. The word ‘enigma’ may have been invented with Iannone in mind; that said, you wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that if a Ducati was to a win a race this season, ‘The Maniac’ would be the rider spraying the champagne of victory.